Stimulus Generalization And Discrimination: Psychology Applications And Definitions

Updated April 13, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Discrimination is a word that can have many different meanings, depending on the context. In psychology, at its most basic level, discrimination means to notice and respond to differences among various objects, ideas, or stimuli. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a broader generalization that involves the tendency to respond similarly to stimuli without any regard to their differences.

In the realm of psychology, discrimination and generalization often play a huge role and can determine an individual’s reactions to particular events and situations. How an individual chooses to respond can be the embodiment of life lessons that they may carry with them into the future.

How Does Generalization And Discrimination Show Up In My Life?

Here's how they work.

Discrimination Psychology Definition

Psychology's definition of discrimination is when the same individual or organism responds differently to different stimuli. In generalization, on the other hand, the individual or organism has the same reaction to similar, but still different stimuli. Discrimination and generalization often occur without your knowledge or forethought; they are simply natural reactions. These are considered unconditioned responses. However, it is possible to condition the discrimination or generalization response to accomplish certain goals.

For example, you can train a dog to perform specific commands (jump, sit, lie down, etc.) by giving them a treat every time they respond to the command correctly. In doing so, you reinforce a specific response to specific stimuli. If the dog is well-trained, they will not jump up when you tell them to sit. The dog can discriminate among the different types of commands - this an example of classical conditioning. The dog's response to your commands is a conditioned response.

Generalization can also be a conditioned or unconditioned response. When you teach a child a skill such as reading or adding, you will likely want that skill to be carried over into other settings besides the classroom. For this to happen, the student needs to be trained to generalize their response so that they can use it in real life effectively.

Another type of response to stimuli is habituation. This occurs when the same stimulus occurs so repeatedly or consistently that it no longer has any effect.

If you hear a siren outside your apartment building, you may jump because the noise startles you. If you heard that same siren all day long, you would likely no longer notice it as the day wore on, and it would cease to startle you. It's possible to condition the response of release from habituation by changing the stimuli. If the subject is habituated to a certain noise, you can elicit a response by changing the noise a bit.

Early Experiments

The first known experiments with discrimination and generalization were performed by the famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the 1890s. His original purpose was to research salivation in dogs. Accidentally, he discovered that the dogs salivated not only in response to food being placed in front of them but also to the sound of the footsteps of the person who fed them as they approached. This was the first known observation of classical conditioning.

Pavlov realized how much of a breakthrough this was and spent a great deal of time researching this response. He found that the click of a metronome could trigger salivation if it were paired constantly with the arrival of food. Eventually, the dogs would salivate whenever they heard the metronome whether they got food or not.

Pavlov also found that time was critical in this process. If too much time elapsed in between the conditioned stimulus (like a metronome or bell) and the arrival of food, it didn't work. The two events needed to happen close together in time for conditioning to happen.

In a later experiment, researchers paired the taste of meat with the sight of a circle. Eventually, they found that the circle could be conditioned to trigger salivation in the dogs, just as Pavlov had found with the sound of a bell or metronome. However, these researchers took things one step further. They found that the dogs generalized between a circle and an oval shape. Both triggered salivations. After several trials in which the dogs were only given meat when presented with a circle (and not with an oval), they began to discriminate between the two shapes.

Discrimination Learning

As it turns out, conditioned discrimination responses are a part of our learning process from the time that we are infants.

As infants, we quickly learn how to identify our caregiver out of a sea of faces. Research shows that babies as young as three months old can recognize their caregiver and even show clear signs of preference. This is at least partly due to classical conditioning: they know that their caregiver is a source of nourishment and care.

Discrimination also comes into play as infants develop their communication skills. Babies soon learn to discern different sounds to construct meaning. Amazingly, research has even shown that infants can tell the difference between the sound systems, or phonology, of two different languages at a very young age.

Unfortunately, we do lose some of our natural ability to discriminate among sounds as we get older because in order to do so, we must reconstruct already-formed synapses. Teaching a language to an older child or an adult requires a more careful process of classical conditioning, in which the teacher simulates specific situations where a language response gets desired results. This is more effective than simply using direct instruction.

Discrimination, Generalizations, And Mental Illness

Discrimination and generalization also play a role in many kinds of mental illness. Conditions such as phobias and anxiety develop as maladaptive learned responses to certain behaviors.

Here are a few examples:

  • Substance Misuse

Substance misuse develops when an individual begins to use a substance (like alcohol or other substances) as a coping mechanism to handle high levels of stress or emotional distress.

When an individual uses this substance, their feelings of stress may immediately decrease. They may begin to discriminate the pleasurable feeling of stress avoidance specifically to the use of alcohol, food, sex, etc. Thus, the individual becomes conditioned to use it as a response to the stimuli of stress. Because stress is ever-present in our day-to-day existence, this conditioned response may quickly escalate into an addiction or misuse.

The good news is that once this pattern is identified, someone using substances as a coping mechanism may be able to learn alternative stress reduction strategies. Deep breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques can gradually replace the substance misuse or unhealthy coping mechanism. The individual experiencing substance misuse may learn to generalize stress reduction to other activities besides the learned response of using alcohol or other substances. Gradually over time, they can learn to generalize the pleasurable feeling of stress avoidance to other healthier activities.


Phobias are irrational fears which may lead to avoidance of specific events or situations. These can also be attributed to a learned response to specific stimuli. For example, if you were trapped in a small space for a long period as a child, you may generalize this negative experience to every enclosed space you encounter as an adult. The same feelings of terror are triggered, leading to an irrational fear of confined spaces (claustrophobia).

Generalization that causes phobias can also be treated through conditioning an alternate response. The individual living with a phobia can be exposed to the object of their fear in a controlled and safe environment while in a state of relaxation. In doing so, they can gradually learn an alternative response to the fearful situation.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety a very common mental health condition that is a response to perceived danger. Anxiety can be an important survival mechanism, signaling us to avoid dangerous situations. Our "fight or flight" response is triggered, resulting in muscle tension and a pounding heart. However, when anxiety begins to negatively impact many aspects of an individual’s life, resulting in an anxiety disorder, it may cause issues.

An anxiety disorder develops when we generalize this "fight or flight" response to situations in which there is no immediate danger present. For example, it is normal to feel anxious if another person verbally or physically threatens you. However, if an individual feels extreme anxiety every time a stranger interacts with them, then they may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, involving social anxiety. In this case, the individual overgeneralized the fear response to every situation that involves meeting new people. That's why the most common anxiety disorder is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).

In the treatment of GAD and other anxiety disorders, individuals can learn to discriminate their fear response between situations which are dangerous and not dangerous. By learning to identify what triggers their stress response, they can learn the relaxation response as an alternative coping mechanism.

Discrimination and generalization are powerful factors in the way we interact with the world. By recognizing and harnessing these responses, we can make great progress in self-discovery and healing.

How Does Generalization And Discrimination Show Up In My Life?


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